Introducing the Yale Quantum Institute and the start of the ‘Second Information Age’

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The Yale Quantum Institute director Robert Schoelkopf crosses his fingers as President Peter Salovey pushes a button to formally launch the enterprise. (Photos by Peter Casolino)

With the push of a symbolic button, Yale’s innovative approach to quantum information science kicked into overdrive.

The Yale Quantum Institute (YQI) officially opened on Oct. 23, accompanied by a discussion of the future of quantum computing — and a bit of theatrics. Quantum information science looks at the storage and processing of data at the atomic scale; it has the potential to revolutionize data encryption, medical research, and the development of new sensors and materials.

“We have a sense there’s a great, untapped power here,” said YQI director Robert Schoelkopf, Sterling Professor of Applied Physics and Physics. “Often we are focusing on the building of a quantum computer … but in addition to just making computing faster and letting us store more information, there are other applications that could be really impactful in people’s lives: Better ways of sensing minute signals, better ways of transmitting information, better ways of securing people’s privacy. There’s a whole host of things.”

A. Douglas Stone, the Carl A. Morse Professor of Applied Physics and Physics, and YQI’s deputy director, started the proceedings with a brief overview of quantum science. He noted that from its very beginnings 90 years ago, quantum mechanics rankled some scientists because some of its properties were so thoroughly unusual.

In the quantum world, physical systems can exist simultaneously in two different states, for example. What’s more, those systems can be directly connected to each other, even from a distance. “Image our surprise, then, when it was discovered roughly 20 years ago that there were revolutionary processing methods which relied on precisely the parts of quantum physics which Einstein hated, and which we were told, growing up, were only a concern to philosophers,” Stone said.

Such possibilities became more evident during the YQI launch event, as National Public Radio science reporter Joe Palca moderated a panel discussion with Schoelkopf and Raymond LaFlamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. The conversation touched upon quantum information as a paradigm shift for technology and an opportunity for scientific exploration.

“We have started to control quantum systems. Now we can learn how to develop technologies,” said LaFlamme, one of the first prominent advocates for the potential of quantum information. He noted that the effort requires not only physicists, but also computer scientists, mathematicians, chemists, and engineers.

“We need to talk to each other in a very different way,” LaFlamme said.

That’s part of the motivation behind YQI, said Schoelkopf. “The goal of the institute is to build the Yale community in this area, to bring people together from different disciplines, and to host visitors from around the world who are experts in this,” he said.

The launch celebration featured a panel with (from left) science reporter Joe Palca, Raymond LaFlamme of the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, and Robert Schoelkopf, director of the Yale Quantum Institute.

More than 120 Yale researchers and staff are taking part in YQI, which expands upon Yale’s leading role in quantum information science. Over the past decade, dozens of research groups in academia and industry have adopted the hardware and techniques developed at Yale, such as its design of superconducting nanocircuits. In addition to Schoelkopf and Stone, Yale scientists deeply involved in quantum research include physicists Michel Devoret and Steven Girvin.

Schoelkopf said interest from government and industry has intensified, particularly as science inches closer to developing a large-scale quantum computer. Once that is accomplished, he noted, devices will have exponentially more power.

“We have hints of what it will do,” Schoelkopf said.

YQI launch organizers saved one playful flourish for the end of the event, asking Yale President Peter Salovey to conduct a “live” quantum observation to determine whether or not the institute was ready to open. All he had to do was press a button.

As the crowd watched a video image of a purported Yale laboratory elsewhere on campus, Salovey’s first attempt resulted in a resounding “No,” complete with smoke, sparks, and a mournful horn. But Schoelkopf prevailed upon Salovey to try again.

This time, a big congratulatory message appeared on the monitor, to cheers from the audience.

“We’re in the second information age,” Salovey said. “I am so proud that Yale is playing such an important role in ushering it in.”

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